Understanding Roads

Americans are spending immense sums of money making cosmetic improvements to a transportation system that is simply not working. Traffic engineers, lacking the correct tools to actually solve traffic problems, have convinced themselves that they are fighting the good fight. They are supported by local government officials, anxious for that next hit of growth that will give the local economy a temporary high. It is a destructive alliance, one that we can no longer afford.

Yesterday we announced our Virtual Curbside Chat, to be held a week from today at 1:00 PM CST. If you have not already registered, please sign up to reserve a spot (we have capacity for only 250) and to receive instructions for connecting to the Chat. Our Curbside Chat program has been immensely popular and this "virtual" chat is a fantastic opportunity to take part if we've not been to your community. 

I don't want to pick on Springfield, MO. I have to admit that I've never been there, but I do like Missouri in general and have enjoyed my time there (except that summer at Fort Leonardwood -- yuck, I hate clay and chiggers). I'm sure Springfield is a great place filled with great people. They just have the poor fortune of having had a local booster make a ridiculous video touting the "pedestrian-friendly features" of their diverging diamond interchange and, well.... It's not personal, Springfield. We'd love to come there for a Curbside Chat.

Last week we looked again at the criticisms of my critique of the Diverging Diamond Interchange (DDI) in Springfield. In the piece (A 45 mph world - November 21, 2011) I made three observations:

  1. We don't have anywhere near the money necessary to maintain our current surface transportation system.
  2. The system we've built is financially inefficient and unproductive.
  3. Americans do not understand the difference between a road and a street.

Today we are going to look at the so-called roads feeding into the interchange. That would be Missouri 13, supposedly a highway of some sort. Missouri state statutes define a highway rather broadly in Section 300.010, actually indicating that a "street" is the same as a "highway":

"Street" or "highway", the entire width between the lines of every way publicly maintained when any part thereof is open to the uses of the public for purposes of vehicular travel. "State highway", a highway maintained by the state of Missouri as a part of the state highway system;

Maybe they mean that it could be a street OR a highway if it is publicly maintained and used for vehicular travel. It makes little difference, as we will see, because they've actually built neither a street nor a highway.

The photo below (credit: Google Earth) shows the diverging diamond and the surrounding land use. Notice that Missouri 13 (which runs north/south) intersects Missouri Route 744 about half a mile south of the diverging diamond. This is the short stretch of STROAD (street/road hybrid) we're going to focus on.

The Missouri DOT, using $3 million of state and federal funds, built the DDI. It was reported at the time that a regular interchange would have cost $10 million, making the DDI not only safer but much cheaper. This is the core of the argument in favor of the DDI, which I really don't disagree with. If you diagnose the problem here as one of traffic, then by all means, use the cheaper and safer alternative. And that is how they diagnosed the problem: "tremendous traffic problems".

Don Saiko, PE, who is a project manager in the Springfield, Missouri District of MODOT, got word of the DDI concept and wanted to investigate the design in the Springfield area.  He got permission to test the design at I-44 and Kansas Expressway (SR 13) which had been experiencing tremendous traffic problems and safety issues due mainly to the small left turn storage areas to the ramps.  A $10 million budget was given for the construction of this project.  The simulations for the design looked very promising to fix the traffic and safety problems.  It was also a very cost effective solution. The DDI was only going to cost about $3 million, saving the state $7 million of the budgeted cost, which would have been the cost for a conventional diamond solution.

If you only have a hammer, every problem becomes a nail, even if your hammer is a European import.

Unfortunately, like all DOT's that I have ever studied or interacted with, the problem in this situation was misdiagnosed. It was not traffic -- or more specifically the stacking and congestion of traffic -- at the interchange. The problem is how the public's investment in Missouri 13 has been debased for short-term economic gain and how, in the process, that has made the corridor unworkable as an actual highway.

Here's what I'm talking about. In order to support the adjacent land use that you see in the picture above, that single half mile of Missouri 13 -- a state HIGHWAY -- contains 29 intersections (each marked with an 'X' in the photo below). That is an intersection roughly every 100 feet. You can't have a highway with smooth, free-flowing, efficient traffic patterns when you also try and accommodate that type of land use pattern.

And look at some of these intersections up close. It is just plain bizarre, especially for a supposedly high-capacity roadway, one I'm certain we've invested millions of dollars to build and maintain.

Now ask yourself as you look at these photos: who are these engineers kidding? What type of improved traffic flow do they really think they are creating by spending $3 million up the street on an interchange? What type of safety improvements do they think they are making at an interchange when they have vastly more dangerous STROAD built like this?

This reminds me of the New Testament parable about looking at the sliver in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the beam in your own. Are we honestly looking at this corridor and diagnosing the traffic problem here as the interchange? Or is it just that the transportation funding -- not to mention the local land use incentives -- favor dealing with slivers and not beams?

And this is just one half mile. This pattern extends a long ways along ol' Missouri 13.

This is far from an efficient transportation system. If you give me $10 million to spend here, I spend it closing accesses. You can do more to improve traffic flow and efficiency by closing these accesses than anything else. All you have here is a bunch of people making inefficient local trips on a highway sized for high-speed, through traffic. That's not a traffic problem. It's a land use problem.

Of course, we can't close accesses. People who own land adjacent to highways have a God-given right to highway access, regardless of the impact. And when an access is taken away, they must be compensated (although it should be noted, when the highway was built, is improved and/or their access is enhanced, that is just the public's responsibility and by no means should be a cost assessed to them). It is the local land use version of "heads I win, tails you lose" because -- in our current system -- the public is either forced to invest endlessly in a transportation approach that can never truly work or are going to pay huge sums of money in compensation.

If those are the only two choices we have, I refuse to play the game. I would not spend a dime on this waste of a corridor. As I wrote last week, the DDI is just putting lipstick on a pig. (Note: Later this week I am going to discuss some other choices we might consider, things that are not on the table today).

Let me finish by making two related observations. The major impetus for building the DDI here was supposedly safety, as it supposedly is in all similar transportation "enhancements" (see earlier conversation on slivers and beams). In fact I had to laugh at this AAA spokesman who has bought into this racket as well:

Mike Right, spokesman for AAA Missouri, said the new design is a positive change, as it reduces construction costs while moving traffic faster and more safely. As motorists have adjusted to roundabouts, American drivers will learn and adapt to the diverging diamond, he said.

I'm assuming that he drove the Missouri 13 STROAD -- about the least safe traffic environment you could be in, with high-speed designs mashed up with turning traffic, stop and go traffic, sudden lane changes and obnoxious signage -- thinking that this was normal. And it is, really, because despite being ridiculously unsafe, it is a design that is ubiquitous across America.

Which leads me to my other observation: Is this all worth it? Yeah, you got the WalMart investment there (which yields less in tax capacity on a square foot basis than Springfield's traditional neighborhoods, I am certain), but really, does anyone in Springfield believe this is more than a near-term benefit? If you do think this is a great long-term investment, I have a challenge for you. Drive south along Missouri 13 until you find the area that was built 30 years ago. How's that area looking? How's it holding up? 

I'm going to venture an educated guess that it's not. Like the land use around the DDI intersection, it was designed for one life cycle. It will not retain its value, it will not be adequately maintained. Today's next new thing is tomorrow's place in decline and a future slum or brownfield site. For some reason we accept that in America. We need to step back and realize that, in the course of human history, it is not normal. Or healthy. Or financially viable.

The time to start building Strong Towns is now.


I have a lot of ideas for how to start addressing these problems. Over the next couple of days I'm going to give you two to think about specifically regarding our highways as STROADs problem. They are approaches that would certainly be rejected by everyone involved in the current system, but all good ideas start out that way. I'm interested to hear your opposition and see if it will turn to support upon reflection. Stay tuned...